Reflections On Joy – 2007

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

I often tell my clients this story. About 20 years ago I was reading (I have no idea what the book was), and I came across the line, “Joy is the sign of spiritual development.” My jaw dropped open, I put the book down, and reflected on the meaning. I wasn’t all that happy at the time, and I thought that if that was true, then I had my work cut out for myself. 

In our culture we tend to have a pretty materialistic view of happiness. We feel happy when we’re opening Christmas presents, when we’re eating something delicious, when we buy something at a good bargain, or if friends or family are being affectionate or validating us. 

Sometime after that I purchased a Great White Pyrenese dog. After visiting the dog several times, I went to pick him up. The owner and I talked about dog care,his needs, and after getting all the instructions, I loaded him in the car. The last thing the owner said was, “He’ll give you a great deal of pleasure.” I had to really think about that.I had never thought about it just that way. That Bear was going to provide a “great deal of pleasure.”

I decided to focus on and get clear about whatprovided pleasure and what I was enjoying. I purchased a calendar, the kind with a picture on one side and seven sections on the other for each day of the week. I resolved to write down each thing that I had enjoyed that day, or that week. It was a bit disconcerting at first, as I experienced the days rolling by, and I wasn’t writing very many things in my calendar. 

In psychological training, the focus is on pathology, negative symptoms, and problems. Previously, only limited areas of psychology focused on developing the human personality to the higher ranges of human development.In therapies that related religious and spiritual dimensions to the therapy process, the view of human development reached into the positive areas including topics of forgiveness, courage, discipline, integrity, compassion, equanimity, and wisdom. More recently psychology has researched and explored what it has termed positive psychology or the psychology of happiness.

It’s very interesting that the core of Buddhist teaching is that grasping, clinging, and craving which is called attachment is what causes suffering. In Western culture we grasp and cling and crave most of the time. To try to practice the opposite, detachment, is a totally foreign endeavor. If we attend to what really are positive qualities, and really work daily, moment by moment, I have learned that it is possible to increase positive qualities, and reduce negative ones.In Christian contemplative writings, Teresa of Avila writes that virtues increase both passively and actively. They increase actively if you work on a daily, moment by moment effort, and they increase passively through contemplative prayer.Buddhist literature describes the same phenomena. Virtues, or positive mental factors increase actively through intent or passively through the daily practice of meditation.

I’ve read the book, Crooked Cucumber, six times now. It’s the biography of Shunryu Suzuki, a Japanese Zen priest and Zen Master, who founded the San Francisco Zen Center. I underlined so many quotes in the book that one time during Christmas break I decided to input all the quotes into my computer. When it was done I asked the San Francisco Zen Center to see if the author, David Chadwick, would email me.On New Year’s Eve I received an email from him.“ What’s up?,” he asked. I told him what I had done, and he agreed that I could send him the quotes. It turned out to be twelve pages, which now can be found on the Crooked Cucumber website.

On page 325, David is describing the funeral of one of the senior students at SFZC. Suzuki delivered a eulogy, and in it he said, “Because of your complete practice your mind has transcended far beyond your physical sickness, and it has taken full care of your sickness like a nurse. A person of joyful mind is contented with his lot. Even in adversity he will see bright light. He finds the Buddha’s place in different circumstances, easy and difficult. He feels pleasure even in painful circumstances, and rejoices. For us, for all who have this joy of Buddha mind, the world of birth and death is the world of nirvana.” 

The great scripture called The Heart Sutra says that the practice of the Buddhist way of detachment “relieves all suffering –this is truth not mere formality.” This is an amazing statement — that a practice relieves all suffering. What happens is that deep acceptance eventually leads to joy. With acceptance and joy, you will find that you have a wondrous amount of things to record in your enjoyment journal. And joy – IS — the sign of spiritual development.